Christmas Eve—Dec. 24, 2013—St. Matthew’s Parish, Pacific Palisades, CA
About that Manger
The Rev. Dr. George Martin
In telling the Christmas Story, Charles Dickens has Ebeneezer Scrooge encounter the Ghost of Christmas Past. In that part of the narrative Scrooge reaches back into childhood memories. The memories he is shown reveal a history of his detachment from the real meaning of Christmas—a pattern set in place early in life, of other’s enjoying the Spirit of Christmas, while he was absorbed in himself. A different Christmas story appeared last Saturday on the front page of Los Angeles Times.
The story was about a family that keeps Christmas traditions which trace back in time—to the time centered around the death of the father of three little girls. Dad was a perfectionist about finding the right fresh tree, cutting it down himself, and decorating it just right. And ever since?—well every tree is judged against his standard. What would Dad say about each tree? And some of the trees, through the years, wouldn’t have received his approval. And yet the story tells of redemption, as every tree helps them remember their Father, and in the case of the author of this piece, her husband.
Family traditions at this time. So important. Some may strangle us or hold us back. Other’s free us to renew our memories and engage each Christmas with joy and gratitude.
A few years before he died, I’m glad I asked my father about a Christmas tradition which I knew when I was small. I would go to bed in a house that had a few decorations up, and maybe even a few wrapped presents next to the fire place. We never had a fire in that fireplace, but I was assured that Santa could get down it, and would be glad that he wouldn’t get dirty coming down that chimney. And there was no Christmas tree when I went to sleep, though it was always hard to fall asleep on that particular night. When my Sister and I awoke, and when we’d creep down those stairs to take a peek, there it was! The Christmas tree, all lit up, with presents sitting under it. You see, Santa, brought the present and also brought the tree.
For years I never asked my father about that. As a child I had never thought about the logistical problem Santa faced with bringing all those presents and all those trees to every house. But then, when my Dad was about 92 years old, he admitted that Santa brought the gifts, but he went out each Christmas eve, after we went to bed, and he found us a Christmas tree. He and Mom were up late those nights putting the tree in it’s stand and then decorating it.
But I wonder not about how the wen about decorating the tree.. Here’s what I asked my Dad, “But we’re they still selling Christmas trees, on Christmas eve, when you went looking for a tree?”
He answered, “Once. Once a lot was still open.”
“And you paid for the tree?”
“I did then,” he answered.
“But then all those other times. I’m mean Dad I hate to ask this, but did I wake up on most Christmas mornings, to a stolen tree.”
“Well, son,” he replied, “they weren’t really stolen. They were done selling them. And anyway you always had the trees no one wanted. And I always picked them out in the dark.”
And you know what? I never remember seeing any tree we had as ugly. Never.
And that observation leads me to suggest a different way of understanding the Christmas story as we hear it read from Luke’s gospel. It seems to us, as we usually hear this story, that there was a rather disappointing moment in the story. The way we hear it it is that when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem that there was no room for them in the inn. And this leads us to presume that they were lucky to get the stable. We hear the story and presume that the stable wasn’t a choice place in which the child Jesus was born. We are led, moreover, to think that the timing of his birth was rather critical—we almost assume from the way we sometimes hear the story that Mary has started to be in labor as Joseph is knocking on the door of that inn.
I have it on good authority—namely the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey—that the essentials of this story—the details—are exactly what Luke, the author, intended. They are that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The child was wrapped in bands of cloth. He was laid in a manger. And there was no room in the inn. Not a single one of those details, however, was ever intended to be interpreted in a negative light. Luke was not trying to tell us that at the beginning of the story of Jesus that his life was somehow in danger. It certainly would be as his life unfolded in his gospel, but not at his birth.
First of all there’s a very telling phrase in Luke’s story: “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” She didn’t travel in the nineth month of pregnancy and arrive at the eleventh hour to give birth to Jesus. They were there in Bethlehem for a while. And why in Bethlehem? Because, according to Luke, that’s where Joseph’s family lived—for he was of the house of David. It’s the name of David that is associated with Bethlehem. And Bethlehem would, in the framework of the Jewish people be the place for the birth of the Messiah. That means Joseph went to be with his family. The last place he and Mary would ever had stayed, at least in that, his hometown would have been a public inn—essentially a first century version motel with a bar and restaurant.
The key to all this is the word used for “inn” or motel in the Nativity Story in Luke. The Greek word used is katalyma.
You and I know how important it is to use the right word in certain situations. So there is a real word for the concept of an inn, or what we’d call a motel, in Greek. And it’s the Greek word used by Luke in the story of the Good Samaritan who paid for the care of the wounded man who’d been robbed. His recovery takes place in an inn and the stay was prepaid. Luke doesn;t call it a katalyma.
So what’s a katalyma? It’s a guest room, in what would have been a two room house. And how do you heat such a house at that time? Well, they would place the house in such a way that it had something like a lower mud room, only this is where on a cold night they would bring in the cows or the sheep. The main living area of this house would be about three or feet up from where the sheep and cows huddled together. In this two room house, the kind that has a katalyna, or a guest room, has it’s guest room open to the area with the animals, who are so precious, valuable, and are part of the family. Your guests are the one’s who get to be warm. Where the animals gathered there also was a carved out stone trough, filled with hay for feeding the animals. And in one part of that trough, in the warmth of that house, inside that guest room, with the smells of those animals, laid on fresh straw was a baby wrapped lovingly in bands of cloth.
And then there were those shepherds out in the cold night. They were in a proscribed profession, which means you wouldn’t want you son to grow up to be shepherd. Garrison Keillor once described shepherds as the first century version of parking lot attendants. But they played a role in this story that is so critical.
Had Jesus been born in a fine home or in a palace it’s sure thing that they would never had been allowed to see the Christ child, even if they said that angels had sent them. They could see Jesus, in Luke’s telling of the story because he was inside the warmth of that guest room. A room in a house like they would have had in Bethlehem. And the significance of the way they saw Jesus. Luke says that the baby was wrapped tightly in bands of cloth, just like they wrapped their own children when they were born. It happens still in so many cultures to lovingly let the newborn feel secure and wanted—as he was. You can imagine the shepherds feeling the love that surrounded his birth.
And when they left Luke tells us they weren’t muttering, “Oh, what a shame that he had to be born there.” And they weren’t saying, “They don’t even know how to wrap a baby up properly.” Instead, as Luke want’s all of us to declare, this is wonderful. This is wonderful. They left that stable, Luke says, glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. And we shall do the same.
But this was just the beginning of the story. And what Luke knows, and we know if we live this story, if we come again and again, is that you tell the beginning because you know the end. And you know the end isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. It’s not exactly the beginning that takes us to Bethlehem, but it’s a story that brings us into community that knows Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Messiah. Jesus the Christ. And Luke says this story begins in Bethlehem. It’s meaning is found in the life we share as his disciples.
I began by reflecting on Christmas past in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, and maybe my Christmas tree stories stirred up something in you. I want to end with another story from the past—it happened in December 1914 on a blood drenched battlefield contested by the German army and the combined Allied army composed mostly of French and British soldiers. A truce had been declared for December 24th by both sides. There had already been some fraternization between soldiers on both sides, but those isolated incidents never were rooted in history, like the one I’m want us to remember. Some of you know what happened.
The British soldiers, mostly on that battlefield, could see during the day that the German soldiers stepped out of their trenches. They were trusting the word of the Christmas truce and started to place Christmas trees around their trenches in the vicinity of Ypres (ee-pra) Belgium. They placed decorations on those trees. Then in the fading light of that Christmas eve afternoon they sang their familiar carols. One in particular was known to the British soldiers.
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Soon the British soldiers sung in English, what will we sing after communion. Silent Night, Holy Night. Stille Nacht, heilige Nact.
On that Christmas eve in 1914 with four more bloodly fruitless years of war ahead, the soldiers from those two armies did something totally unprofessional in a military mindset. They crossed the ground that would be contested in days ahead, but on this evening they exchanged addresses, pictures, mementoes, and they hugged and laughed together. The commanders of their armies were not happy. There were a few other such occasions at other times in that awful war, but after the Christmas Truce of 1914 the generals of both sides declared this a violation of their standards for proper military men.
But, oh! Oh how this true story captures the spirit of Jesus and carries the message of the angels: Glory to God in the Highest and on earth—peace.”
So you we always come on Christmas eve mindful of something from the Christmas past. This story, this life of Jesus, includes the past we always bring, but with a message we sometimes forget. The past can be redeemed. It need not haunt us like it did Ebenezer Scrooge. It can call forth something in us that roots us in the people of God who try to walk lives that express the love of Christ. So come here or come to some place that knows Jesus. Not just that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But knows Jesus as Lord of Life. King of Kings. Savior. Redeemer. And know Jesus the Christchild so wanted in this world— Jesus born in Bethlehem.
We get the whole story with the last stanza of our closing hymn. Hark! the herald angels sing!
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.
Risen with healing in his wings,
light and life to all he brings,
hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace. Amen.